If you were a top-ranked undergraduate college with just one academic option, a joint major in naval architecture and marine engineering, would you suddenly round up most of your entire student body and whisk them off to a musical?
You would if you the musical was “The Last Ship,” starring Sting, a haunting Broadway musical about the decline of a shipbuilding town in northeastern England, where the singer/songwriter grew up. Especially if Sting was willing to sit on the edge of the stage after the show and chat about shipbuilding.
Rick Neilson, the dean at Webb Institute on Long Island, arranged for 56 students plus 23 faculty, staff and spouses to go to a matinee in December, on the weekend before final exams. He and his wife had seen the show earlier and were moved by the evocative lyrics.
“To someone like me who has worked in two shipyards and been around them my entire career, it is very emotional,” Neilson said. “I mean, come on, who can’t love a line like ‘We’ll conjure up a ship where there used to be a hole’”?
The show advertises itself on Broadway as “a portrait of a community so bound together by passion, faith and tradition, they'll stop at nothing to preserve the only life they've ever known.” Sting himself joined the show December 9, a move that revived the musical’s box office fortunes. At press time he had already extended his planned run through January 24. In an odd coincidence his understudy, Jimmy Nail, is a friend of Neilson’s and has shipbuilding ties too – he worked on turbine blades before becoming an actor.
Webb, founded in 1889, accepts only about 26 students a year into its four-year program, but there’s a huge bonus: they are offered scholarships covering full tuition. The trip to “the Last Ship” was underwritten too, by an endowment that enables Webb students to attend cultural events.